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Oklahoma's smallest bank survives, thrives in Elmore City

Elmore City is home to the state's smallest bank, based on assets, but the business is an integral part of the community.
by Brianna Bailey Modified: September 1, 2013 at 9:00 am •  Published: September 1, 2013

Ott, whose family owned most of the bank for three generations, began working at the old bank building at the age of 6 or 7, while her grandmother, Amanda Raines Gibson, ran the bank. Ott would dust and sweep the old bank for five cents an hour.

“I was always fascinated by when I went to the bank how friendly everyone was and how everyone knew everyone else who was working behind the tellers' cage,” Ott said.

Thriftiness breeds success

The bank has managed to survive all of these years not only because of its customer service and commitment to the community, but also because of the Gibson family's thriftiness, Ott said.

“All of the fixtures in that building — the teller windows, everything was secondhand,” Ott said.

Ott recall her father, the bank president, and uncle Cortez Gibson, who also once ran the bank, wearing resoled shoes. The family supplemented their income by keeping livestock.

“Everyone thinks bankers are rich, but that's not the case,” Ott said. “In reality, you work very hard.”

Elmore City resident Dwane Cassell, 74, is working repair and restore the exterior of the bank building with the help of his two grandsons. He remembers cashing his paychecks at the old bank building from summers spent haying in Garvin County.

“It was very important in the community then because it was the only bank here,” Cassell said. “It's a part of the history of the town.”

First State Bank's roots can be traced to one of Elmore City's first merchants, J.P. Gibson, who organized a private bank in 1902 out of the front of his general store on the town's Main Street.

The bank was eventually charted as First State Bank in 1903, and received its charter from the Oklahoma State Banking Department soon after statehood in November 1907. Although other banks in the state also claim the same honor, First State Bank has documentation that it was the first bank in the state to receive its charter after Oklahoma gained statehood.

Hall-of fame baseball player Johnny Bench was at one time a part owner of the bank and once handed out autographs on Main Street in Elmore City.

Under new ownership

First State Bank has been owned for the past few years by members of the Christensen family in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City attorney Clay Christensen is the majority owner of the bank, and a brother and sister are also part owners. Clay Christensen's brother, Wade Christensen, husband of Gov. Mary Fallin, is not part of the ownership group.

“We wanted to make sure the bank stayed in the community and wanted to sell it to someone who would keep it local,” said Gene Cobb, First State Bank president.

Clay Christensen had been the bank's attorney for a number of years before the bank's directors approached him about buying the bank.

“They were thinking it that it was time to sell it and they wanted it to remain local and have someone keep it in Elmore City,” Christensen said. “And, of course, I was familiar with the bank inside and out and knew it was clean as a whistle.”

Under the Christensens' ownership, First State Bank is trying to do more lending and slowly expand the bank with more home loans — but prudently.

“When we purchased the bank, they weren't really doing much lending and we wanted to change that,” Clay Christensen said. “When you are a very small bank, you can't really afford to have a lot of bad loans.”

Dealing with regulations

New lending regulations from the federal Dodd-Frank reform law make mortgage lending tougher, especially for smaller banks, Christensen said. But First State Bank has been seeing some success, he said. The bank mainly keeps its mortgages in-house, but also sometimes sells them on the secondary market.

“A lot of our customers want their loans to stay in-house; they want to know where their money is going and who they are dealing with — they want that personal interaction,” said Kayli Christensen, Clay Christensen's niece, who is in charge of mortgage lending for First State Bank.

First State Bank, which has one ATM in Elmore City, also just introduced online banking for its customers.

Ott, who still serves on the bank's board of directors, said she is glad to see the bank embracing new technology, but she also believes that the personal touch is what will enable the bank to continue to thrive in Elmore City.

“I like to see the bank being high tech but, on the other hand, I want it to be high touch and take really personal care of the customers,” she said.

by Brianna Bailey
Business Writer
Brianna Bailey has lived in Idaho, Germany and Southern California, but Oklahoma is her adopted home. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and has worked at several newspapers in Oklahoma and Southern...
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